Feb 122012

In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, Charles Murray, author of Coming Apart: The State of White Amer­ica, 1960-2010, identifies five common myths about white people:

  1. Working-class whites are more religious than upper-class whites.
  2. Elite colleges are bastions of white upper-middle-class privilege.
  3. Marriage is breaking down throughout white America.
  4. White working-class men have a strong work ethic.
  5. White Americans are yesterday’s news.

Another article, in the NY Times, quotes Murray as remarking that merely extending his thanks “can cause trouble for people in academia.”  This same article says that on a recent visit to Earlham College (my alma mater) Murray’s talk was twice interrupted by fire alarms.

As asserted in an earlier post on American Exceptionalism, Charles Murray is an important ob­server of con­tem­porary society. He is worth listening to despite fire alarms and regard­less of whether or not one agrees with him.  Here is a preview that he wrote last month of Coming Apart, called Belmont and Fishtown.


Sep 262011

Walter Russell Mead is James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Hu­man­i­ties at Bard College, and Editor-at-Large of The American Interest.  Mead, the son of an Episcopal priest, was educated at Groton, which he calls “Pundit High”, and Yale, where he still teaches International Security Studies. From 2003 until 2010 Mead was the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. His books include Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World (2001), and God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World (2007).

Mead is also the author of an energetic and well-written blog, Via Meadia, in which he discusses a broad range of foreign and domestic issues. In a recent essay Mead says that his motivation for this blog is “a sense that the world is moving faster than our thought about the world,” a point he also makes in Global Weirding Coming at Us All. Mead describes himself as a Democrat who voted for Obama in 2008. But he often argues against orthodox liberal positions. For instance, he criticizes what he calls “the blue social model” in Beyond the Big City Blues and Why Blue Can’t Save the Inner Cities Part I and Part II. He supports school choice, and he lacerates the green move­ment in such essays as More Green Madness on the Plains. There is a distinctive re­ligious sensibility in his writing, perhaps best illustrated in He Plants His Footsteps on the Sea: Faith Matters.

I find Mead’s blog refreshing, and appreciate his attempt to move beyond the ideological conformity of the aca­demy. His advice to first year college students is given in Back to School.


Jul 302010

Photograph by Steven Pinker

I very much enjoyed Rebecca Goldstein’s  36 Argu­ments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. It is a novel of ideas — one that explores the intersec­tion between in­tel­lec­tual and spiritual life. The protagonist, Cass Seltzer, is an academic, a psychologist of religion whose sur­prise best-seller, Varieties of Religious Illusion, has led to his acclaim as “America’s favorite atheist.” More­over, Cass has just been offered a job by Harvard — the pinnacle of aca­demic success. In contrast to this professional tra­jec­tory, however, Cass’s private life reveals a preoccu­pation with issues of mean­ing and trans­cen­dence. We notice in Cass those “obstinate question­ings of sense and out­ward things” that are characteristic of the religious percipient. So if this is athe­ism, we wonder, how does it really differ from theism?

Goldstein describes her point of departure for the novel as follows:

Dinner party hostesses used to be warned to steer the conversation away from politics and religion. I used to wonder why, but I don’t anymore. There are some differences that reveal rifts so deep that dialogue breaks down. Among these are the current debates that have been raging between God-believers and the so-called new atheists. It often seems that people on one side can’t begin to grasp what the world is like, what it feels like, for those on the other side. When the person with whom one is conversing appears utterly opaque, then mistrust and contempt are easily aroused: How can he be saying that when the opposite seems so obvious to me? Is he stupid, dishonest, maybe just a touch evil? These are not the sort of suspicions that the gracious hostess wants intruding at her candle-lit dinner table.

But for me, as a novelist, it’s differences like these, indicating entirely different orien­tations toward the world, which are the most tantalizing to explore. Arguments alone can’t capture all that is at stake for people when they argue about issues of reason and faith. In the end, I place my faith in fiction, in its power to make vividly present how dif­fer­ent the world feels to each of us and how these differences are sometimes what is really being expressed in the great debates of our day on the existence of God.

[from amazon.com]

The 36 chapters of Goldstein’s novel have titles that refer to Cass Seltzer’s interior life: The Argument from the Improbable Self, The Argument from Lucinda, The Argu­ment from Dappled Things, The Argument from the Irrepressible Past, The Argument from Reversal of Fortune, The Argu­ment from Intimations of Immortality, The Argu­ment from Soul-Gazing, The Argu­ment from the Existence of the Poem, The Argu­ment from the Eternity of Irony, etc. Her appendix provides 36 parallel philosophical arguments for the existence of God (and discusses their weaknesses). One historical argument that seems to be missing — although perhaps it is subsumed by others — is C. S. Peirce’s neglected argument. The number 36 is significant, being the number of the Lamed Vav, the just men who assume the weight of the world and its sorrows. According to Talmudic tradition, without these just men God would lose pa­tience with humanity and the world itself would come to an end.

Something I have always liked in Goldstein’s writing is her deft satire of academic pretensions and foibles. The culminating debate between Cass Seltzer — who keeps forgetting about it — and the Nobel-prize winning theist Felix Fidley, for instance, is sponsored by the Harvard “Agnostic Chaplaincy”; and the portraits of Cass’s erstwhile academic mentor, Jonas Elijah Klapper, “Extreme Distinguished Professor of Faith, Literature and Values”, and the beautiful Lucinda, “goddess of game theory”, skewer recognizable academic types. Nonetheless, there is a rare seriousness to Goldstein’s project, a recognition that meaning is not just constructed but encountered. This is particularly noticeable in her description of Azarya, the young Hassidic mathematical prodigy who must choose between his love for mathematics and his role in a religious community. It is also true of the relationship between Cass and Roz. To be human, Goldstein says, “is to inhabit our contradictions.”

Rebecca Goldstein earned her Ph.D in philosophy from Princeton University, and has taught philosophy at various schools on the east coast. Her first novel was The Mind-Body Problem, which I liked very much, and she has also written Properties of Light: A Novel of Love, Betrayal, and Quantum Physics and several other novels. Two (non-fiction) philosophical works that I admire are Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew who gave us Modernity, and Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel. She was chosen a MacArthur Fellow in 1996.


Jun 142010

This post is about a remarkable man who I have been fortunate to have as my friend. Philip Barlow is a Mormon and a scholar of American religion; he earned his B.A. in History from Weber State College in 1975, his M.T.S. from Harvard in 1980, and his Th.D. from Harvard Divinity School in 1988. He taught Religion at Hanover College — a Presbyterian School — until 2007, when he was appointed the Leonard J. Arring­ton Professor of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University.

Last summer I reread Phil’s book, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion, pub­lished in 1991, by Oxford University Press. This is a book that deserves the many accolades it has received; it is an honest and thoughtful dis­cussion of scriptural inter­pretation and religious belief in Mormonism. One reason that this dis­cussion is important for non-Mormons is that it con­cerns the early stages — more accessible than in main­stream Christianity or Judaism — in the development of a religious tradition. The recent appearance of Mormonism, and its extensive docu­men­ta­tion, comprise a valuable resource for understanding how religions in general evolve. Especially interesting to me is the unique relation of Mormon scriptural exe­gesis to secular philosophy and changing standards in textual criticism.[1]

In reviewing Jan Shipps’ Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years among the Mor­mons, Phil summarizes the current state of Mormon studies, observing that:

From the vantage of American and western culture, Mormonism’s half-familiar, half-exotic nature and history render it a magnetic case study on issues besetting contemporary scholars. The movement is sufficiently alien for comparative interpretation to be neces­sary, sufficiently familiar for comparative interpretation to be possible, and suffi­ciently complex to challenge the most able historical minds. Indeed, if we sustain Shipps’s con­tention that, like Christianity or Islam, Mormonism constitutes a new religious tradition, it becomes a rarely accessible laboratory. The Saints are record-setting record keepers, lush almost without precedent, given their short history, in primary materials. Moreover, the movement is present and growing in the nation as a whole and especially in the American West, where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is among the three largest “denominations” in two-thirds of all U.S. counties west of a vertical line running from Canada, through Denver, to Mexico. Beyond this, Sydney Ahlstrom’s argument that scru­tiny of Joseph Smith and his heirs “yields innumerable clues to the religious and social consciousness of the American people” requires augmentation in light of the dramatic internationalization of the church, which is affecting its nature and entwines diffusely with the spread of American influence abroad. Africa will soon harbor more Latter-day Saints than Europe; South and Central America will presently have more than the United States. Mormon history is uncommonly colorful, difficult, controversial, impacting, and unfolding. It no longer seems strange that scholars of all stripes, in trying to come to terms with America’s distinctive religious legacy, find Mormon faith and culture tough to ignore. [2]

In less formal remarks in 2009, Studying Mormanism in the Academy, Phil provides a justification for including religious studies in a liberal arts education. He characterizes the underlying point of the liberal arts by a series of questions:

What does it mean to be human? How have diverse societies gone about it across time? How shall we? What is the nature of the physical and biological universe in which we are making our way?

He claims that the study of religion is an obvious component of the project to address these questions,

One would think it self-evident that the study of religion fits easily within this project. Religion, it might be argued, is the most obvious of laboratories for our consideration, where individuals and organizations pursue what it means to be human in distilled, compressed, and intentional ways.  Religion is either the most powerfully motivating and directional force on the planet, or it shares that honor with money and other forms of power.  . . . .

In a more disciplinary sense, Religious Studies may be construed as going beyond com­parison and contrast to concern with a different sort of inquiry.  The focus is on matters of religion and identity and culture, and on how religion “works.”  In particular, the inquiry asks after the relationship between belief and behavior, and between a religious com­munity and the surrounding culture.  . . . .

Religious Studies in the context of the liberal arts may ask such questions as:  How does a new religion get “birthed” and, once here, how does it find traction in the world, establishing its new vision of the world and its new values and ritual and community?  How do successful religious traditions survive their infancy and transcend the culture in which their formation occurred, so as to become world religions?  Once established, religions either change or die; how does a religion navigate profound change without losing its identity?  What portions of a tradition’s literature become sanctified as scripture, and why and how?

Phil seems to understand both his scholarship and his faith as being informed by the spirit of science and reason. In an early essay he explains that this is an assumption, and says: “I think it is a mistake to attempt to elevate religion by disparaging reason. I believe my mind to be more a friend than a foe to my spirit, and that God gave me my intellect in the same sense that He gave me my soul.”[3] In my opinion, Phil’s scholar­ship shows a level of integrity and transparency that one could only wish were common­place among scientists.

Phil is the co-author, with Edwin Scott Gaustad, of the New Historical Atlas of Reli­gion in America, named by the American Association of Publishers the Best Single-volume Reference Book in the Humanities in 2001. He is also the co-editor, with Mark Silk, of Religion and Public Life in the Midwest: America’s Common Deno­minator?, published in 2004, and he has books in progress with Jan Shipps (Columbia University Press) and with Terryl Givens (Oxford University Press).

  1. Massimo Introvigne suggests an apparent ‘inversion’ in Mormonism, whereby liberal theological thought is more closely identified with modernism and con­servative thought with postmodernism. See “The Book of Mormon Wars: A Non-Mormon Perspective“, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5, no. 2 (1966), 1-25. I do not know what Phil thinks of this — although similar intriguing ideas are suggested by his own work. One of the advantages of studying a culture which is “strange yet familiar”, it seems to me, is that it enables us to discover the contingency of intellectual connections that we otherwise just assume. []
  2. Philip Barlow, “Jan Shipps and the Mainstreaming of Mormon Studies”, Church His­tory: Studies in Christianity and Culture 73, no. 2, (June, 2004) 424-425. Jan Shipps’ own story is worth reading and is partially related on-line in “An ‘Inside-Outsider’ in Zion”, Dialogue: A Journal in Mormon Thought, 15, no. 1 (Spring, 1982), 138-161. []
  3. Philip Barlow,  A Thoughtful Faith: Essays on Belief by Mormon Scholars (Cen­ter­ville, UT: Canon Press, 1986), 238-239. []
Apr 202010

The name “positivism” comes from the writing of Auguste Comte, the 19th century philosopher of science and founder of sociology.  In his Course of Positive Philosophy, published from 1830 through 1842, Comte de­scribed human history as progressing through three distinct stages which he called the theological, the meta­physical, and the positive – the final stage corresponding to the ordering of society by modern science. Comte’s positive philosophy was quite influential in the nineteenth century. According to Michel Bourdeau:

It is difficult today to appreciate the interest Comte’s thought enjoyed a century ago, for it has received almost no notice during the last five decades. Before the First World War, Comte’s movement was active nearly everywhere in the world. The best known case is that of Latin America: Brazil, which owes the motto on its flag ‘Ordem e Progresso’ (Order and Progress) to Comte and Mexico are two prominent examples. The positivists, i.e., the followers of Comte, were equally active in England, the United States and India. And in the case of Turkey, its modern secular character can be traced to Comte’s influence on the Young Turks.[1]

Like Marxism, Comtean positivism heralded a new age — an age in which the super­stition and religion of the past would be replaced by a society organized entirely upon scientific principles. Comte’s philosophy was less a philosophy of science than a social and poli­tical movement with a program for human progress. Un­sur­prisingly, it gra­du­ally turned itself into a sort of religion — with public wor­ship ser­vices, a liturgy derived from Ca­tholicism, and a calendar of posi­tivist saints.[2] The Comtean move­ment survived the century but was eventually extin­guished by the First World War.

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  1. Michel Bourdeau, “Auguste Comte”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010). []
  2. Bourdeau notes that Comte’s founding of the Religion of Humanity, in 1849, accomplished “a tour de force by uniting both believers and non-believers against him.”  The theoretical justification for this direction was the “complete positivism” of the System of Positive Polity in 1851-1854, in which Comte argued that the claims of science should become subservient to “the continuous domination of the heart.” []
Feb 082010

‘Theodore Dalrymple’ is the pen-name of Dr. Anthony Daniels, retired British doctor, contributing editor for the City Journal, author, and eloquent conservative obser­ver of contem­po­rary culture. Recently, Daniels was invited to give the annual John Kenneth Galbraith Lecture at Memorial University in Newfoundland. The Galbraith Revival is a reflection on that experience.

Other articles to try include: They dance, I take the dog for a walk, What is Poverty?, What the New Atheists Don’t See, False Apology Syndrome, and All Sex, All the Time. There is a directory of Dalrymple’s City Journal work here.


Feb 052010

by Johann Sebastian Bach

The Cantata “Actus Tragicus”, BWV 106, is one of Bach’s greatest cantatas. Here is Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (Part II), from a wonderful performance on period instruments by Joshua Rifkin and The Bach Ensemble.


Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit.
In ihm leben, weben und sind wir,
so lange er will.
In ihm sterben wir zu rechter Zeit,
wenn er will.

Ach Herr, lehre uns bedenken,
daß wir sterben müssen,
auf daß wir klug werden.

Bestelle dein Haus,
denn du wirst sterben
und nicht lebendig bleiben.

Es ist der alte Bund,
Mensch, du mußt sterben.
Ja, komm, Herr Jesu.

God’s time is the very best time.
In him we live, move, and have our being,
as long as he wills.
In him we die at the appointed time,
when he wills.

Ah Lord, teach us to remember
that we must die.
that we might gain wisdom.

Set thy house in order,
for thou shalt die
and not remain alive.

It is the ancient law:
man, thou must die.
Yea, come, Lord Jesus.

Recorded in 1985, Joshua Rifkin and The Bach Ensemble, with Ann Monoyios, Steven Rickards, Edmund Brownless, Jan Opalach. Decca

May 152009
God created the integers; the rest is the work of man.
Leopold Kronecker


What are we saying when we talk about music?

This question captures the paradox that lies at the heart of musical theory. Put in its most basic form, the problem that has dogged musical theory since Boethius has to do with the relationship between reason and the esthetic sense. The earliest theories show that the coexistence between the two was never an entirely easy one:

In the final analysis, it was to this that the Pythagoreans’ harmonic analysis of the universe led: the discovery of incommensurables. And no matter how they might juxtapose the numbers, no matter to what lengths they might extend their mathematical circumlocutions, one fact remained, a fact that has ever since proved resistant to mathematical rationalization: there is no fraction m/n that will divide the whole-tone into two equal parts.[1]

The Pythagorean construction of music was an attempt at reconciling the rational and the beautiful — at showing that they are, indeed, one and the same. In this sense it was a corollary to the impulse behind the Parthenon: the Athenians believed that the golden ratio, applied to every dimension of a structure, would create something that was beautiful precisely because of its mathematical perfection.

In music, as mentioned in the previous quote, this dream was quickly shown to be illusory. While the Parthenon was constructed ex nihilo, and could perfectly mirror the rational dreams of its designers, the Pythagorean theorists of music were con­fronted from the beginning with a stubborn fact: there were pre-existing and deeply engrained notions of what constituted the proper and beautiful in music — the whole tone, the semi-tone, the modes, the tuning of the lyre — and, although they hovered tantalizingly close to the realm of reason, they ultimately eluded its grasp.

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Apr 092009

The exciting archaeological discoveries at Gobekli Tepe, a mega­lithic site in southern Turkey that predates Stonehenge by about 6000 years, are reported on the Smithsonian website.  Gobekli Tepe consisted of multiple T-shaped stone pillars, up to 16 feet tall and weighing 7 to 10 tons each, arranged in circular patterns on a hill­top. The location was apparently used for religious purposes and probably preceded the advent of agri­culture in the region.

The link is from Jebadiah Moore’s excellent The Jeblog, where he remarks:

I really like the theory that the desire to create this place led to the devel­opment of agri­culture rather than the other way around. Perhaps I’m just romantic, but I like the idea that humanity only wrested itself into a single place in order to fulfill a higher goal.

In a similar context, speaking of the Hopewell mounds at the High Bank site in Ohio, I can remember Bob Horn observing that the gods can be useful to humans.


Jan 182009

On September 12, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI gave an address to the Faculty of Science at the University of Regensburg entitled Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections. This address was widely reported by the press, especially the Pope’s remarks about Islam in which he cited the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus’ contention that violence is incompatible with the nature of God.  In the aftermath there were riots and demonstrations, diplomatic protests were lodged throughout the world, and a nun was killed in Mogadishu. Here is the Wikipedia description of the con­tro­versy.

More interesting to me, and not reported by the press much at all, is the rest of what Benedict had to say at Regensburg.  At risk of simplifying, I will pick out three major points:

1) Benedict claimed that Christianity must be viewed within the broader context of Greek philosophy. “This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history — it is an event which concerns us even today.”  (This is in response to what the Pope referred to as the “call for the dehellenization of Christianity”.)

2) He positioned the Church explicitly on the side of modern science. ”The scien­tific ethos, moreover, is. . .the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which belongs to the essential decisions of the Christian spirit.”

3) He called into question logical positivism — citing the unity of human reason and the “intrin­sically Platonic element” in science.

Spengler remarks somewhere that the Catholic Church is one of the few modern institutions that finishes its conversations. This should be reason enough, I think, to attend to the remainder of Benedict’s address. In my opinion, there is considerable philosophical sophistication in the Pope’s comments.  Even for those of us who are not Catholic, the Regensburg address provides a refreshing counterpoint to the flat land­scape of post­modernism.  I recommend it.


Dec 142008

Robert L. Horn is a philosopher, scholar, and teacher who has been an inspiration for several gene­rations of young philo­sophers. He grew up near Richmond, Indiana, earned his B.A. from Earlham College, his Th.D. from Union Theological Semi­nary, taught at Haver­ford Col­lege (1958-1961), Union Theological Seminary (1960-1966), and was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School. In 1966 he was lured back to Earlham, where he taught for roughly thirty years. His area of specialization was in Kant, Hegel, and the Danish Hegelians who com­prised the context for Søren Kierkegaard. He also had a deep interest in Plato, especially in the illumi­na­tion of the dialogues by historical and archaeolo­gical research, as well as in Native American culture and as­tronomy.

It was with great pleasure that I learned, last year, of the publication of Robert Leslie Horn, Positivity and Dialectic: A Study of the Theological Method of Hans Lassen Mar­ten­sen, Søren Kierkegaard Research Centre and C. A. Rietzel, Copenhagen, 2007.  I think that Bob was probably pleased that it was published by Kierkegaard’s publisher, Rietzel. Here are some snippets from the editor’s introduction:

The present work was originally a dissertation for the degree of Th.D. at the Union Theological Semi­nary in New York City in 1969.  For years now, it has been known as a kind of insider’s tip among the small circle of Anglophone scholars interested in Danish Golden Age theology. Unfortunately, the work was never published, and its reception has until now been limited to those who personally knew the author or had access to it via the university microfilm dissertation service. . .

Although it was written more than twenty-five years ago, this text still today must be regarded as one of the leading works on Danish Golden Age philosophy and theology in the English language. . . .the present work can be said to anticipate a number of historically oriented studies of Søren Kierkegaard’s works that have been published over the last decade or so by leading scholars. . . .In this respect it is to be praised as an outstanding pioneering effort in the field.  However, unlike many other pioneering works, its scholarly standard is extremely high. . .

There can be no doubt that when this work comes to be more generally known by students and scholars alike, it will contribute immensely to our appreciation of the work of Hans Lassen Martensen. Moreover, it will help to put the philosophy and theology of Søren Kierkegaard in a new perspective. . .

There is much more that can be said about Bob Horn. It was an extraordinary privilege to study with him. I thought of Bob when I read Nathan’s post mentioning Schoen­berg’s comment to Karl Kraus: “I have per­haps learned more from you than one is permitted to learn if one wishes to remain independent.”


Nov 012008

I am not much interested in the hidden intentions Shakespeare had in writing Macbeth, whether he was striving to portray the immortal torment of the human soul or merely to flatter the self-importance of an English King. I’ll leave that to the scholars and hecklers of the human spirit who can find nothing better to do than to dig around in the dust-bins of history. I am interested in the play as it stands. In particular, I am interested in the “weird sisters.” I think we should take the damn witches seriously.

Readers have scoffed for centuries at the three witches in Macbeth. But nowadays we are not satisfied with scoffing at witches, and we seek to go further. Nowadays our literary critics herald “the death of the author” as Nietzsche once spoke of “the death of God.” There is only the text, they say, and the doer behind the deed is a metaphysical fiction. But if skepticism is our value we should also show skepticism about our skepticism. We should be suspicious of the grandiose claims of Nietzsche and our contemporary literary critics and suspect, in the spirit of Mark Twain, that reports of the death of God and of authorship are greatly exaggerated. Authors and gods are tough things to kill. As Shakespeare wove the witches into Macbeth in diverse and subtle ways, gods and authors weave themselves into the fabric of our world. Perhaps in time we could “kill them,” but should we? Would life be better, more worth living, in a disenchanted world?

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Oct 162008

Philosophers have never felt comfortable speaking about silence. Why should they? At best such efforts are ironic; undertaking them literally is generally thought to involve performative contradictions, since the content of what we are trying to say contradicts the fact that we are saying it. When mystics claim to have an ineffable, or inexpressible, knowledge of ultimate realities, philosophers are naturally curious to hear more about it, but of course anything intelligible the mystics may say, including the very idea of the ineffable, is by definition not ineffable but expressed, and hence self-refuting. It seems that the best solution is for mystics to maintain total silence. But even then Hegel does not leave the mystics alone. He dismisses their silent knowledge as “the night in which all cows are black” – in other words, as a pre­sumptuous and ultimately empty achievement.

Trying to speak about silence is akin to the ontological task of trying to get something from nothing. Maybe God can create ex nihilo, but the rest of us find this hard to understand, and doing it is totally beyond us. Most philosophers cannot even bake a cake. Even ordinary people find it hard to argue with the principle ex nihilo, nihil fit (from nothing, nothing comes) — and when philo­sophers are asked to make something of nothing, they seem compelled to employ humor to effect their escape. For example, in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy P. L. Heath writes:

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